What does an intercooler do?

What does an intercooler do?

Installing an intercooler

On the modification scene, the intercooler is usually hot property when forced induction is in play.

Allowing the air to hit an intercooler before making its way to the intake manifold certainly has its advantages.

But how exactly do all these components play nice together? Let’s find out.

What is an intercooler and how does it work?

This is all an orchestra of heat exchange and thermodynamics – the aim of the game is to ensure that the air hitting the combustion chamber of the engine is cooled off beforehand, and this is where an intercooler comes into the fore.

Turbochargers and superchargers compress any air that enters them and, as a result, becomes very hot, which isn’t ideal for later down the line.

An intercooler, however, can take this compressed, hot air that has been processed by the turbo or supercharger, and then through a series of fins and plates, dissipate the heat.

From there, this cooled-off air will then enter into the intake manifold, where a more efficient process can happen thanks to the cooler air being much more oxygen-rich than it would have been without the influence of the intercooler.

In terms of types of intercoolers, there are two: air-to-air intercoolers, and air-to-water intercoolers.

The former is a more commonplace intercooler, thanks to its lower cost, simplicity and lower weight, and you’ll find two versions of an air-to-air intercooler – front-mount and top-mount.

Front-mount intercoolers are seen as the most effective at cooling off the air, but are harder to install – whereas the opposite is true for top-mount intercoolers.

Air-to-water intercoolers, meanwhile, can do a notably more effective job at cooling the air, but comes at the cost of complexity and expense thanks to the added element of liquid being involved.

Pros – Why would I want an intercooler?

Performance – This is the main one, by far; getting that cooler, more efficient air into the combustion chamber means the engine creates more bang, in so much that more fuel can be burnt and so more power can be produced.

Less Knocking – One of the core benefits of an intercooler is that, with the air being cooler when entering the engine, you’ll find you get less knocking or pinging, where the air-fuel mixture ignites prematurely due to high temperatures and pressures.

Extra Efficiency – As well as enhanced performance, you’ll find you get a bit of extra bang for your buck thanks to an intercooler. With cooler air being more oxygen-rich, it means the combustion element can happen much more efficiently, and so a few extra miles can been eeked out of the tank.

Consistency – With the intercooler keeping things cooler in the engine bay, you can achieve more predictable engine performance, even if the driver is being particularly demanding of the power unit.

Cons – Why might you not want an intercooler?

Weight – Adding such a component as an intercooler at the front of your car immediately adds a notable bit of weight to an important region of the vehicle. After installing an intercooler, it might be that you notice the handling characteristics of your car alter slightly.

Complexity – If you add any additional part into an already complex area of a car, things can always have more chance of going wrong. This is especially so if you take on the job of installing the intercooler yourself.

Installation – Which leads to getting the thing in there in the first place. If an intercooler wasn’t factored into the manufacture of your car in the first place, it might be that you find it hard to install as an aftermarket component. 

Intercooler FAQs

Do intercoolers add HP?

While an intercooler on its own does not create additional horsepower, the cooler air it sends to the intake manifold helps towards ensuring the engine is creating maximum power.

This is because it is the temperature difference that leads to combustion in the first place – the greater the temperature difference, the greater the combustion – and so the cooler the air is when it enters into the fuel-air mix, the greater this difference can be, and so more power is created.

Do intercoolers use coolant?

If the intercooler is air-to-water (or air-to-liquid), then it will utilise a liquid coolant to cool the compressed air from the turbo or supercharger.

Can you paint an intercooler?

This is probably a bad idea, as this will reduce the efficiency of how the intercooler will work – however, you’ll find that intercooler manufacturers will be able to offer such parts pre-painted, and done in a way that will not be a detriment to the component.